Film: A Question of Standards

Is Errol Morris's "Standard Operating Procedure" meant to be taken as art or journalism?

What fascinates Morris isn't really the answers to who did what to whom when, as a journalist would demand, but something far subtler: what is, really, the "record," the "narrative"? He takes the scandal at the military prison of Abu Ghraib as his laboratory and sets out to contextualize the famous pictures of harsh treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American service personnel.

The best sequence of the film follows Army investigator Brent Pack as he reconstructs a timeline from photos as Lynndie England and her pals did their version of "duty." It is fascinating to watch as Pack, abetted by Morris's documentary techniques, is able to arrange pictures on the timeline, by angle and proximity to the central events, to re-create that day.

Of all his films, this one is most reminiscent of "The Thin Blue Line," another movie built around the idea that the official "record" deconstructs if closely examined. The movie is a tapestry of talking heads, and at last these young people have a chance to talk.

His stylizations are well known, and perhaps, given the seriousness of the subject matter, this might have been an ideal time to abandon them. We get the big musical score that provides momentum, frequent blackouts to bridge the disjointedness of some of the interviews, and super-sophisticated graphics.

If the movie is meant to uncover any "big scandals," it's a disappointment. The investigator, in one surprising sequence, goes through a number of alleged "torture" photos and acknowledges that the vast majority of them represent "standard operating procedure." That is supposed to be the film's kicker: not what was illegal but how much was legal.

"Standard Operating Procedure" R, 127 minutes, contains sexual innuendo, violence and blood smears.


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